According to the Centers for Disease Control, one American dies of a drug overdose every 14 minutes … with a rapidly increasing share of those deaths caused by prescription drugs. It’s the sort of statistic law enforcement officials in one Florida county know about all too well.
Instead of chasing drugs from abroad, police say their biggest problem now comes from a doctor’s office.
After years of spotty regulation, Florida is still awash in prescription painkillers, like Oxycontin, the brand name for Oxycodone.
And the effect has been lethal: In Florida alone, seven people die of prescription drug overdose every 24 hours.
Nationwide, prescription drug overdose has surpassed traffic accidents as the leading cause of accidental death.
“I think we have to realize that this is the first time in the history of the world that we have had a public health epidemic of death, disease and destruction that is actually being caused by health care,” said Lisa Roberts, a public health nurse.
And Florida is the epicenter:
Police surveillance tape captures a Pinellas County pain clinic – run by a licensed doctor as a cash-only convenience store for prescription painkillers, or pill mill – and the customers can’t seem to get in fast enough.
“People literally line up in the morning, wait for the doors to open,” said Chief Deputy Bob Gualtieri. “They swarm inside.
“I hate to even call them ‘doctors,'” Qualtieri said. “Because they’re really not doctors. They’re people who hold a medical license, but they’re really not practicing medicine. And you pay a cash fee.”
“They’re drug dealers,” he said.
When we rode along with Pinellas County sheriff’s deputies, their focus was a storefront medical clinic.
Shutting down the “doctors” who run pill mills can be a marathon legal process, so in Pinellas County, police also go after the visitors as they leave.
If the detectives can get them for the smallest violation – maybe they don’t put their seatbelt on when they drive away – that’s a reason to pull them over, and most of the time something else is going on in that car.
Police follow one car for a few blocks, then pull him over for the seatbelt violation – and find he’s carrying a handful of prescriptions. They suspect this “patient” may be a prescription drug dealer – going from doctor to doctor, stockpiling supplies.
After a few phone calls to the doctors, he’s arrested on suspicion of doctor shopping – a felony that carries a jail term of up to five years.
Part of the problem, police say, is the lure of instant wealth.
Chief Deputy Bob Qualtieri says the pill mills are very profitable: “Because you can go to a local pharmacy and buy a generic pill for about a dollar a pill. You could sell it locally, on the street, for $15 to $20 a pill. You could take it up north in some places and sell it for $30 a pill.”
The drug problem has moved north with interstate speed, as addicts and sealers bring pills from Florida back to their hometowns in other states – a phenomenon known as the “Oxy Express.”
Lisa Roberts has watched the number of pill addicts in her town of Portsmouth, Ohio skyrocket. “It has truly crossed over into mainstream Middle Class America as a prolific addiction,” she said.
“Our mindset is that these are medications, and therefore, they are safe,” said Roberts. “And so people tend to take them very casually. Whereas a person would not consider doing heroin, they would consider – and be encouraged – to take a pill.”
When Jason Davis hurt his back, he naively went, x-rays in hand, to a pain clinic that his mother says turned out to be little more than a front for drug dealing.
“I remember him going, and he came home, he said, ‘Mom, I went in there, I’m the only one that had an x-ray,'” Patty Davis recalls. “He didn’t know anything, you know, what’s going on. You know, we were all stupid at that time, you know?”
Patty Davis found an array of her son’s pill bottles hidden on her property – all from the same state.
“I had found out that he had been making monthly trips to Florida,” she told Smith. “to a pain clinic in West Palm Beach.”
In August 2010, after returning home to Ohio from yet another run to Florida, Jay Davis was found unresponsive at his home.
“I went up to the apartment. The detective was in the yard, and he said, ‘Are you the mom?'” Davis said. “I said, Yes, I am.’ He said, ‘You can’t go in there. You can’t see him like that.'”
Patty has found comfort in a group of moms who lost children to drugs – and now lobbies for tougher laws.
They’ve pushed successfully for stricter prescription drug laws in Ohio. Ad in Florida, the crackdown on prescription drug abuses has gone form the clinic to the classroom.
On average, kids are believed to begin sampling prescription drugs starting at age 13.
“They will either take it out of the medicine cabinet or buy some on the street,” said Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw. “And then they have a party and when they go in, the admission to the party is a big bowl and they just drop pills in the bowl. And of course there’s alcohol there. But the end result is there’s a chemical reaction between those two pills and that alcohol.”
“If they’re lucky, they will fall in a spot where they can breathe,” Bradshaw said. “More times than not they don’t and in about three minutes they’re dead. And that’s the overdose death from prescription medication.”
Karen Perry lost her oldest son Richard to a drug overdose in 2003. She visit him every day in the small cemetery across the street from her home.
“I can tell you there’s nothing worse than losing a child,” she said.
In her son’s memory, Perry founded the Narcotics Overdose Prevention and Education task force, traveling the state to share a story that never gets easier to tell.
And the message seems to be getting through, to kids at least: Prescription drug abuse among Florida teens is on the decline.
And just getting illegal pills in Florida could soon be a lot tougher.
Starting tomorrow, pharmacists can tap into a brand-new statewide drug database designed to track the most addictive painkillers.
It’s a start, cops say … but only that.
When asked if police were chipping away at prescription drug trafficking, Chief Deputy Qualtieri said, “Barely.
“There are a lot of efforts being made, and there’s a lot of people dedicated and are working hard every single day to try and make a dent in it, but we got a ways to go,” said Qualtieri.